Loyalty to cause, political faction, job, whether virtuous or corrupt, is at the forefront of the two one-act plays that comprise the second programme in the Make Mine A Double series at the Park Theatre.
In Oliver Yellop’s Tunnels, two male cousins busy themselves over the course of a year with digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall to escape to freedom. Around them, state-sanctioned propaganda blares out incessantly and invasively, doing its best to commandeer their minds. Constructed as a series of vignettes, the young men reveal themselves in moments of repose and great drive. There’s a nice – if macabre – moment just after uncovering the skeletal remains of two dogs when the boys use the skulls as if announcers at a World Cup match, a playful and carefree passage in which innocence may freely flourish. This is a luxury not usually granted in such dire circumstances. They are careful to respectfully rebury the pieces after use.
As the possibility of emancipation grows nearer, both Freddie and Paul suffer conflict. Devoted to his girlfriend, Freddie would like to make her privy to plans and offer her opportunity. It would not make sense to build a life elsewhere if she is not a part of it. Paul often endures what appears as panic attacks, occasioned by his time in prison subject to interrogation and abuse. He has attempted to escape before and was caught, a nasty gash from barbed-wire a throbbing bodily legacy. Yet he also espouses a committed belief in the principles of the GDR, wary of the unlimited prospects the open West offers. It is unclear whether the Stasi may have pressed him into nefarious service. A tight clutch of light holds the men, hemming them in, effectively suggesting the claustrophobic quarters. The confines are a triggering device for Paul.
Yet for all the careful set-up, the script lacks an essential urgency and pace. Paul’s breakdowns grow ever more histrionic, pain clearly felt but not transferring to audience. His murky, suspect motivations especially in the latter stages don’t carry real force as they feel more a dictate of the narrative than organic revelation. Some essential part of him remains frustratingly opaque and not in a tantalising way. His turn near the end could also be a colossal lie used as gambit to make his cousin stay to finish the task and not abandon him. The creative decision to not have the two men speak in a German cadence but rather their own British vernacular is a major distraction as at times it feels like listening to two mates conversing at the pub. The tragedy of walls crashing down and ways ultimately blocked doesn’t really register as Paul is persistently unfathomable. What this journey has meant for him, what propels him, remains unclear. His complications are not rendered sharply enough. Writer Yellop’s and Lewis Bruniges’s performances work hard to convince and bring illumination to a script that doesn’t quite keep up with them.
Sam Hoare shambles onto stage, taking the audience into his confidence in Press. He spins a wild tale of arriving home to encounter his wife in a moment of carnal bliss with a swarthy stranger. She chastises him for interrupting the act. Stupefied, he propels himself to the local Premier Inn for the night. The following day, he returns to take his beloved dog for a walk that ends in the canine’s death after chasing an errant ball out into a busy roadway, resulting in his wallet possibly being lifted. It is, admittedly, an entertainingly scathing story, delivered with great gusto and detail (and an American accent). Who would begrudge him wanting to drown his misfortune in a few drinks, if only someone would give him a few bob for the pleasure. In an instant, switching to his native British, he reveals his smarmy sleight-of-hand, exposing us as fools. He has expertly used one of the dirty tricks of his trade as a hack journalist to hoodwink us into sympathy.
Hoare possesses an inherent likability, which is essential in the opening stages of this bracing confessional monologue as he recounts with unrepentant glee his sordid life as a tabloid reporter. There’s a steady stream of sharp statements (“I got a first-rate degree from a second-rate university” and “Marriage starts with hearts and diamonds and ends with clubs and spades” are two notable examples) and a cheerful admission that he used money loaned to him by his parents as a means to play video games for six months and host coke-fuelled poker nights. He unashamedly admits being horrified at the monstrous appearance of his newly-born little girl. He is expert in exploiting people to gain trust. He is not above misrepresenting himself to bottom-feed. It’s a sport to traffic in the misery of the defenceless poor, smug in the assumption that the authorities will not interfere.
A day of reckoning comes when the despondent sister of a murder victim disparaged by the journalist commits suicide with the scraps of his articles surrounding her. He is out of a job and becomes a reluctant stay-at-home dad to his young daughter. He recognises a defiant streak in her that he greatly admires, and Hoare skilfully shades in a growing admiration for and love of his child despite how dismissive he may want to be. An incident at a snobbish country club forever endears her to him. Insistent that he never meant any harm and was merely good at his job, he remains unregenerate.
After a year off work and an anathema in his field, he is hired by a global news organisation and given the chance to investigate possible government malfeasance and cover-up by authorities of atrocities perpetrated against a group of migrants. Meeting with a source who has incriminating photos of horrific injustice, he stumbles on a minefield of buried bodies. Hoare references any multitude of contemporary ethnic and religious conflicts while basing this drama in an imagined dystopian Britain. Pursuing a righteous and ethical path brings its own dangers, some quite a bit more serious than losing a job. There may be terrible cost. Those hired to protect may not always be trustworthy. He realises how special time with his family was, remembering one particular blissful moment of peace. It’s a memory that sustains him through incarceration. To the end, the journalist sees no difference in the approaches he took, low or high, just that he was marvellously adroit in his pursuit of both.
As he speaks, a barkeep occasionally appears, gradually divesting the stage of props, until the journalist is marooned in a stark environment, a subtly effective device to suggest a life stripped bare. It could just as well be the determined ghost of a murdered girl done wrong, evening the score. As Suzanne Emerson’s elegant projected design work illustrates, people must not be treated as abstracted playthings, a convention of silhouettes eventually yielding to a very real, moving and urgent document from the frontlines of Myanmar, an unnerving image of a besieged group of youths, violence coiled in the frame. The script takes some wild turns of tone but remains focused and confident. By the end, a man who started as a spiritedly vile specimen has gradually transformed into an object of pitiable admiration, his naked human self.